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‘American Idol’ Audience Shrinks 12% in Season Opener

‘American Idol’ Audience Shrinks 13%
Singer Jennifer Lopez speaks onstage during the 'American Idol' panel. Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

“American Idol” averaged 26.2 million viewers in the two-hour opening of its 10th season on News Corp.’s Fox TV, the show’s second-smallest first night audience and a threat to the network’s ratings dominance.

The audience shrank 12 percent from the 29.9 million who watched last year’s debut, according to updated Nielsen Co. data released today by Los Angeles-based Fox. The 18-to-49-year-old viewers, a group prized by advertisers, fell 18 percent.

The series, most-watched in the U.S. for seven straight seasons, has been the biggest contributor to Fox’s six-year lead in 18-to-49-year-olds and was retooled this year with new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Halfway through this TV season, “NBC Sunday Night Football” leads in total and younger viewers, according to Nielsen data, while CBS is the most-watched network among all viewers and the target group.

“We knew this day was coming,” David Bank, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in New York, said in an interview. “Without Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul, we figured ratings would slip.”

In the past six seasons, the large audience for “Idol,” which starts in January, has carried Fox to victory in the target younger audience. Ratings for the night highlight the importance of the series, which attracted two to three times the number of viewers as competing programs, Nielsen data show.

Fox will broadcast the Super Bowl on Feb. 6. The annual NFL championship game attracts the largest TV audience of the year and will give the network a ratings boost that lifts its season-ending tally.

New York Hopefuls

Last night’s episode featured hopefuls in the New York suburb of Jersey City, New Jersey. Singers tapped by judges to advance will travel to Los Angeles for the next round. In tonight’s show, judges screen tryouts in New Orleans.

“Idol” is airing on different nights this year and added the new judges after Simon Cowell departed for Fox’s “X-Factor” competition show, which starts in September.

The ratings last night marked the biggest drop for an “Idol” season opener. The first season debut had the lowest audience at 9.85 million viewers, followed by season two at 26.5 million in 2003, Nielsen data show.

Producers FremantleMedia North America Inc. and 19 Entertainment, part of New York-based CKX Inc., brought on Universal Music Group for the new season and renewed the show’s focus on music. Jimmy Iovine, founder of Universal’s Interscope Records, will coach contestants on the air.

News Corp., controlled by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rupert Murdoch, rose 43 cents to $14.66 as of 4 p.m. New York time in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares gained 6.4 percent in 2010 compared with a 13 percent increase in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Ad Rates

“Idol’s” ninth season, where voters crowned Lee DeWyze the winner last May, dropped 9 percent in total and younger viewers. A 30-second commercial during the show costs an average $485,000, more than the $445,000 garnered by NBC’s Sunday football, Ad Age reported in October. Fox expected fewer viewers last night and priced advertising accordingly, Bank said.

“They anticipated some of this,” Bank said. “The ratings guaranteed to advertisers probably incorporated the decline.”

Fox is averaging 7.73 million viewers a night this season, lowest of the major U.S. broadcast networks, and is drawing 3.66 million viewers ages 18 to 49, second to CBS Corp.’s TV network.

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